Balancing justice and order

Jacob Zuma. File photo
Jacob Zuma. File photo
Image: Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

At the intersection of governance and politics lie several balancing acts.

The standout balancing acts are those choices around order and justice, and around rupture and continuity.

The latter is probably more applicable to societies in transition, but it would be foolish to traduce the former.

If these binaries seem impossible to navigate consider, briefly, the “intersection” of politics and governance.

This intersection is not one of those quiet, middle-of-nowhere four-way stops in the Karoo, where incoming traffic trails clouds of dust that are visible to everyone, and where drivers exercise caution, observe some basic decorum, a spirit of civility and give others the right of way with a smile and a wave.

It is more like the traffic circle in some of Asia’s busiest cities, where once I tried to steer a scooter in one direction, but a mass of other scooters – some carrying an adult with as many as three children – forced me in the opposite direction.

I went with the flow mainly to save my life or, at best, the embarrassment of causing a massive pileup.

This is a clearer picture of the intersect between politics and governance, especially in a society as wracked and ruined, as bitter, vengeful and lacking in trust, as we are.

It becomes all the more important in the coming months, therefore, that we look very closely, critically and honestly at the promises made by politicians.

Politicians almost always promise more than they can deliver.

Once they have made their promises, it is invariably up to technocrats in the public service to implement and transform ideas, principles and electoral pledges into practical measures.

Here is where we need to understand the aforementioned balancing acts.

To help understand the tension between order and justice, imagine a group of rowdies in a London pub standing on tables, shouting and screaming, hurling abuse and beating one another over the head with heavy wooden chairs.

Now imagine the pub owner calling them to order. Then, one rowdy demands free food (as a measure of justice). The pub landlord then says: “Behave yourselves (order), and I will give you free food (justice).”

Another rowdy rises, and says: “If you want us to behave (order), give us food (justice), first.”

We can go on like this forever. At some point those in office, whether a political leader or pub landlord, need to make a decision.

What is more important – justice, or order? What should come, first – justice or order?

We South Africans can barely agree on justice, for the way that contemporary injustice is associated with historical injustices.

Order, for its part, is also associated with the oppressive “law and order” approach to the iniquitous distribution of justice during apartheid, and settler colonialism, in general.

The second set of binaries – the difference between rupture and continuity – has been linked to claims, righteous or otherwise, of justice provided and justice denied during the transition from to democracy in the apartheid mid-1990s.

The basic claim is that the negotiated political settlement was a compromise based on the need for stability and continuity, and to avoid rupture.

The result of this compromise secured almost all the cornerstone institutions – policing, justice, public administration, the Westminster parliamentary system etc, mutatis mutandis.

A set of numbers, basic as it may seem, but which should not be scoffed at, demonstrates the achievements of the post-apartheid government, most especially the reduction of overall poverty, and the increase in access to water and sanitation, energy, telecommunications and education.

At the same time, there is incontrovertible evidence of a type of backsliding in the provision of public goods and services, during the decade or so of the Jacob Zuma presidency.

At the end of that disastrous period, inequality and unemployment, maladministration, corruption, greed and unethical behaviour had become hallmarks of post-apartheid South Africa.

On the basis of this, there has emerged a veritable revisionism of the political settlement of the 1990s.

There is, now, a belief that the polity that emerged from the negotiated settlement may have been created in the best way possible (at the time), but not to last.

There is a belief that the need for stability, continuity, and an orderly transition undermined, or hamstrung, the distribution of justice.

Part of this new belief is the idea that disruption, and even mass-scale rupture of the political economy, was necessary to re-divide justice.

The closer we get to the next election, which will more than likely be sometime within the next 12 months, we will see a lot of dancing around the issues of justice and order, between rupture and continuity.

It does not help that there are so many differing conceptions of justice in the country, nor does it help that mass disruption, violence and forms of rapine have become permissible, and even considered necessary, to “correct” the polity that emerged from the negotiated settlement.

It becomes ever so important, as we go through the next year or so, that we understand the differences between politics and governance.

Politicians can say what they want in order to get elected. What happens on the day after the election matters little to nothing.